In his 1927 novel, Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis created an all too enduring American archetype, the mesmerizing showman as pious hypocrite. Gantry is a small time preacher who gets his start on the tent-revival circuit, then rises to lead his own prohibition congregation only to be brought down by his inner demons. Now, fast forward half a century; our Gantry no longer needs keep one step ahead of his imbibing and sexual demons. Here he sits in a plush chair in a corner office looking across Independence Avenue, the Capitol dome looming over one shoulder.
Behind the firewall of captive "values" voters, in the upper reaches of American power, today's DC struggle is between money and real money; forget the quaint love and hate tattoo props that served tent preachers like Gantry, so well. Mark Foley, the recently disgraced congressman from Florida, had risen swiftly inside the self proclaimed party of family values not for his silver tongue but for his ability to spread dollars around for the campaigns of his fellow Republicans not only in the House but over in the Senate. That he was clearly, if not declared, gay, and third in line for power in a party that relied upon homophobia as a wedge issue, was just one of many, wrinkles in the Washington power fabric, that stayed hidden behind that firewall. Up in the ivory tower, there were no discernible twitters when the dapper Foley was put in charge of crafting a law to punish sexual predators who routinely use Internet chat and e-mails to solicit sex with minors, not even from colleagues who were familiar with Foley's own squirrelly activities.
Foley, of course, had moved up when Majority Leader Tom Delay was indicted for moving illegal outside money into Texas in a laundering scheme. But unlike our antiquated Elmer Gantry, who wrestled with his struggle between good and evil, when DeLay was before the camera for his mug shot, he put on his special smile. He explained that his smile wasn't motivated by politics at all. He was, he remarked wrapped in Christ: "I said a little prayer before I actually did the fingerprint thing, and the picture. And my prayer was basically: 'Let people see Christ through me. And let me smile.' So, the impact of the picture was that people would see the humility, forgiveness and generosity of Christ?*
Unlike the unbroken flow of money on Capitol Hill, there is, it seems, very little shame to pass around these days: Ralph Reed, a familiar Washington player, and former head of the Christian Coalition --a powerful umbrella organization for Christian right groups around the country-- ran for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia this political season. A win in Georgia, was to be a stepping stone to the White House for the 39 year old Reed, a former Young Republican who came up in the same class as conservative mega power brokers Jack Abramoff, and Grover Norquist. When it came out that Reed had taken Indian gambling money supplied by Abramoff to influence Christian groups in one state to nix competition for one of Jack's casino customers then turned around and demanded more Indian money to help get the same anti-gambling groups to somehow fail to oppose moves that would result in the reinstatement of another casino, Reed thought he might just be able to keep his campaign from crashing. When an e-mail between Abramoff and his partner-in-shake-downs, former DeLay aide, Jack Scanlon, was made public, in which the duo characterized Reed as one upping them when it came to venality, Reed hardly missed a beat in his political run!
Ironically, it wasn't the outrageous pay to play behavior of inside partner DeLay or the scads of money reaped by the duo --Scanlon agreed to give the government over $19 million as part of his plea agreement-- that brought Abramoff and Scanlon down. When Mike dumped his fiancÚ, Elisa Miller--a woman who had her own 10 seconds of fame when she tried to cut off an interview her boss Colin Powell was giving live on Meet the Press-- for a manicurist, she brought a bunch of her ex's incriminating e-mails to the Feds. With enough goods on the table to sink him for 20 years, Scanlon found it handy to cut a deal with the prosecutors, agreeing to reveal all about his partner, Casino Jack. That left Jack no choice but to turn around and trade his own testimony for a lighter sentence. Abramoff had passed out a lot of money and megaperks for a lot of people in Washington. It was clear that for some the shit was about to hit the fan.
In Georgia these were links that even the boyish looking Reed couldn't overcome, at least this time around. But back in Washington the Republican leadership had come to another conclusion about the Abramoff lobbying scandal even as several of their numbers, including the "Mayor of Capitol Hill", Bob Ney, were toppled. When the story first broke on the heals of the Duke Cunningham conviction, they had promised to pass some reforms that would restrict the flow of money and gifts from the sea of some 30,000 lobbyists that surround them. But of late their pollsters were telling them that their voters out there were more interested in the old saws, fetal rights and gay marriage and the impact of illegal immigration. Needless to say, with the money spigot wide open again, no meaningful lobbying restrictions got passed this session. And with the election season coming around, all eyes turned back to the volume of the money flow.
But if in Washington the existential struggle is between money and more money, out where the voters live, sex still resonates. We don't have to look too far back to the Monica Lewinsky impeachment effort or Janet Jackson's popper. Already a couple of weeks into the Congressional page scandal it has been a lot tougher for the Republican leadership in Washington to try to figure out how to put a Jesus smile on the Foley affair. Instead, for the simple political reasons that more resignations will just start a cascade, they have decided to circle the wagons around the Speaker, Denny Hastert. In so doing, they've had to explain to the faithful how it was that they were aware they had a homosexual with a predilection for young men among them, that they had been informed of his proclivities and did little about it. Their voters have to believe Hastert's story that he thought Foley was just being "overfriendly". Hastert, an ex high school teacher and coach, tells his constituency, that he's probably a bit naive when it comes to these things.
Right behind him there's the head of the Republican Congressional Reelection committee, NY Congressman Tom Reynolds. Reynolds was benefactor of Foley's bounty and also in the loop on the reports about Foley's actions with the congressional pages. His excuse is that he passed the information and burden up the chain to Hastert. In other words, he wants his public to agree, that he was aware of what was going around among the pages regarding Foley --his own chief of staff had to resign because of the role he played in the final stages of the outing by ABC-- but did nothing more to protect the youngsters than pass the problem up the chain of command.
Still, to the delight of the Democrats who would like to keep it there for as long as possible, Hastert's blood is in the water and some of the more savvy Washington conservative voices have publicly urged that he resign. Their thinking, having seen these things play out before, is that it's only a matter of time before some evidence emerges that proves that Hastert (and the other leaders for that matter) knew about some of the more egregiously salacious stuff than they are admitting now. After all, there have to be several hundred reporters assigned to digging something up along with an FBI investigation.
Of course, with uberstrategist Carl Rove facing a rapidly collapsing Baghdad story that has completely undermined his key narrative and the President's major effort to claim that Iraq is the central front in the War on Terrorism, timed with a Saudi push to bring gas prices down eclipsed by the Foley scandal, there's always a chance the White House will try some heinous wag the dog strategy, say, with a mock terrorist attack, probably somewhere outside the US so as not to mar their domestic attack record.
There's now coming apparent, as the war story collapses, a glaring problem with Bush's logic regarding the central front in the war on terror argument for Iraq: the question, it seems, has to be raised, if this is indeed the central front in the War, as the President insists, how come we aren't calling for an all out effort to win it? In other words, how come there's no talk of a draft and no talk of more troops and money and the need for domestic sacrifices to shore up the effort? These are questions Bush doesn't want to have to answer.
So with little more than four weeks left 'til an election that looks more and more like it will result in the turnover of both houses as the fundamentalist base turns away, like it did in Georgia and moderates vote in a referendum against Bush's astounding record of failures. Will the guys who have screwed up their war, gutted the military, splurged away their seemingly unassailable majority, tarnished the glow of their conservative cause, the authority of the office of President and the reputation of the country in the world, try to pull one more major coup? One can only imagine Carl Rove's fingers interlocked as he wrestles them between "love" and "hate". In the tent preachers' public preachments "love" always overcame "hate". We will all be glued to our screens to see what happens to Carl's hands.